By Doug Bruzzone
Special to S.F. Examiner
ORACLE PARK — San Francisco Giants starter Jeff Samardzija began Saturday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays strong, giving up just two hits and one run in his first four innings, continuing an encouraging trend from his first start of the year against San Diego.
Samardzija needed just 55 pitches to get through his first four frames — a step forward from when he threw 88 in five frames against the Padres — but after giving up up four singles in the space of six batters, the big right-hander had turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit with runners on second and third and two outs.
Manager Bruce Bochy removed him for left-handed reliever Travis Bergen, who got the Giants out of the inning by inducing cleanup hitter Brandon Lowe to hit a fly ball to center fielder Kevin Pillar. Bergen, 25, who made his first big league roster out of spring training, earned his first win of his big league career, and another first-time big leaguer — Connor Joe — got his first Major League hit, as San Francisco came out on top of the Rays, 6-4, after Brandon Belt capped a four-run fifth inning rally with a two-run opposite field homer.
“I felt the same [in the fifth inning],” Samardzija said. “I just think the ball came back in the middle of the plate and it was up a little bit. I think I was getting some swings and misses on balls down in the zone in those middle innings when it was going well, and they kinda changed their approach a little bit and just stayed short and put the ball in play. It seemed early on, they were trying to go for the big one and it was helping me out, and they adjusted.”
Samardzija only lasted 4 2/3 innings, but that was longer than the Rays’ first two pitchers combined. Tampa Bay, as it often does, used right-hander Ryne Stanek as its opener, pitching the first two innings. After he retired six straight, he gave way to lefty Jalen Beeks, who himself only lasted two innings before giving way to Ryan Yarbrough, who went three innings.
Like Friday, the Rays opened the scoring in the top of the first inning, plating a run on a Tommy Pham walk and a Ji-Man Choi double, but unlike Friday, San Francisco answered back a couple innings later.
In the bottom of the third, Pillar reached on a bunt single to Choi, the Tampa Bay first baseman. He then stole second and took third on an errant throw by catcher Mike Zunino. Joe Panik walked and moved up to second on a sacrifice bunt from Samardzija, Pillar scored on a Steven Duggar sacrifice fly and then Brandon Belt singled in Panik for a 2-1 lead.
The Giants have had trouble this year scoring early in the game this year, and Saturday was the first time all season that they had scored any runs as early as the third inning.
“I think it definitely helps,” Belt said. “We’ve been a little sluggish the first few innings this season, so to get out there and jump on the board early definitely helped. I don’t know why that was, why we weren’t doing that early in the game, but it happened today and we’re gonna go with it. Hopefully it builds momentum.”
San Francisco’s offense has spent all year looking like a junior varsity squad scrapping against the big boys, scratching out what they can in the late innings. On Saturday afternoon, though, they were the strong Major League lineup that you’d expect from the back of their baseball cards.
After the Rays retook a one-run lead in the top of the fifth, chasing Samardzija from the game, Panik led off the bottom of the frame with a walk, and Joe pinch hit in the pitcher’s spot. Joe, who came into the game 0-for-13 for both this season and his big-league career, blooped a single into left just in front of Pham for his first career hit.
Then the Giants got the big hits that had eluded them for their first eight games in 2019. Duggar lined a double down the right field line, scoring both Panik and Joe and giving San Francisco the lead back. Belt then homered into the left field bleachers, finishing off the Giants’ scoring at a season-high six runs.
Pillar and Belt each had their own spectacular defensive plays, with Pillar making a diving catch on a sinking Tommy Pham line drive into center field to prevent the fifth inning from getting out of hand, and Belt diving for a ground ball to keep Daniel Robertson from reaching base in the sixth.
Pillar believed off the bat that he was going to catch the ball.
“I feel like that’s what I bring to the table,” he said. “Super competitive, especially on the defensive side, and especially when I’m not swinging the bat the way I’m capable of hitting. I’ve always had this mindset of, if I’m not getting hits, other people don’t get hits.”
It was a showcase game for Pillar. He had a bunt single, a stolen base, and a diving catch in center field, showing off all the skills that enticed the Giants trade for him.
“I feel like that’s what they acquired me for,” he said. “To just roam that big center field and come up with some hustle plays, steal some bases, find ways to get on base … it was the most fun I’ve had on a baseball field this year.”
Bergen, Sam Dyson, Tony Watson, Reyes Moronta and Will Smith finished the game on the mound for the Giants, giving up just one run on three hits and a walk in 4 1/3 innings. Smith earned his third save on the year and. Bergen had his fiancé in the stands for his first major league win.
“We have the benefit of a great bullpen,” said Samardzija, still building arm strength after suffering a shoulder injury in 2018. “To bring a fresh young arm in there and then have those guys after it that we had, with the way our offense was looking today, that’s the way it goes … I’m just excited to keep this rhythm going on every fifth day and just keep getting better. I felt a lot better out there today than I did the last time out.”